Disclaimer: I do not own the Avengers or any of the characters affiliated with them. If I did, there would totally be a Hawkeye/Black Widow movie in the works.
Author's Note: While I embrace constructive criticism, remember this old saying if you choose to leave a review "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all"
And we are finally back with the next multi-chapter installment to the Vantage Point Universe. I know, I know...I kept you waiting FAR too long. But hopefully you'll decide the story was worth the wait :) For those of you that sent me messages of encouragement - I thank you sincerely. More than once, those messages helped me get the strength to battle through writer's block.
As usual, special thanks to Kylen my amazing beta and good friend. She literally inspired this story. She gave me the idea to go this direction and I ran with it. She is amazing and this story is dedicated to HER - for her friendship, her inspiration, and her amazing writing skillz (that's right...skillz with a Z because she's that awesome)
Now, I could bore you with more talk, but I won't. Because I'm sure you are all anxious to get reading! And if you're not, you should be! :D If you're new to my work, this is part of a series, but can be read alone. All you really NEED to know is that Phil and Clint have a very deep brotherly/father-sonly bond. If you curious about my universe, click on over to my profile page and see what you can see :)
If your life was complete, you'd be dead.
Clint jumped, twisting his body into the air. His right shoulder rolled against his opponent's left as the man charged him. Clint continued the roll, knees tucked to his chest, until the expanse of his shoulders had rolled across his opponent's. Then Clint landed lightly on his feet and watched his attacker stumble away, momentum thrown off by Clint's acrobatic dodge.
Clint sensed an attack on his left and bent backwards at the waist, spine becoming parallel to the floor. A leg swept through the space above him and he felt the air in front of his face shift. Clint reached back with his left hand, bracing it on the ground, and levered his body into the air, twisting his own legs around the attacking limb before it had passed out of range. For a moment both he and his attacker were frozen – Clint braced on one hand with his legs locked around his attacker's. His attacker, caught in an awkward, half-completed turn, left leg stretched uncomfortably behind him.
Clint had been counting on that loss of balance. The man had turned his body, anticipating completing the revolution of the spin kick. Clint had abruptly stopped his progress, trapping his leg.
All it would take was a little applied force at the right angle and the man would be on the ground. So Clint pushed off with his supporting left hand and twisted his body into a sharp spin. His vice grip around his attacker's leg forced the other man into a spin as well, hopping on his right foot as he tried to keep his balance, only to be forced to give in to the torque Clint was applying to his leg. His foot went out from under him and his right leg got caught up with his left. They both landed hard on their backs, legs in a tangle.
Clint pushed away, rolling into a backwards summersault and coming to his feet. His senses barked a warning and he crouched and then jumped, flipping backwards into a tight ball, and passing cleanly over the leg kicking out at him. Clint landed easily on his feet and immediately launched into a back handspring, putting some distance between him and his attackers.
"You know that last move almost dislocated my hip."
Clint smirked across the training mat at Agent Phil Coulson as he picked himself up off the floor.
"What's the matter, Phil? Starting to feel your age? Hips getting a little arthritic?"
"I can wipe that smirk off his face for you if you want, Phil." Agent Todd Bryan grinned predatorily as he shifted closer to Clint. He backed away, needing to prolong the pause in combat for as long as possible. Just over a month since Budapest and he was still fighting to build his endurance back up. He needed a breather now if he was going to lay both of these guys out like he wanted to.
So he steeled himself and shot Bryan a challenging glare that bore a hint of arrogance.
"You could try – might not go well for you."
Phil shifted as well, flanking Clint from the other side.
"Tactical error, Clint." Phil's voice took on a familiar tone – his coaching tone.
Clint arched an eyebrow, continuing to back away from them.
"You let us back you into the wall." Phil nodded towards the wall behind Clint, but Clint just shrugged, unconcerned.
Phil and Bryan's eyes narrowed at the same time and Clint smirked. He saw the exact moment Phil realized where they were standing. His eyes drifted upwards for barely a moment and then he was moving at him, Bryan a step behind.
Clint turned and ran straight at the wall. He dug his left foot into the wall, and then did the same with his right two feet higher, one final step up with his left and he pushed off, twisting in the air and stretching towards the metal bar sticking straight out from the wall ten feet off the ground. His hands caught the rod easily and his body swung forward. He brought his legs up into a pike position, his body in V under the bar. Then as his momentum reversed, he levered himself up, folding his waist over the metal for a moment before he was pushing up and placing his feet on the bar between his hands. He stayed there, coiled, for only a breath, and then he exploded up and away from the bar. His hands caught the next bar – six feet up and six feet ahead of him – and he propelled his body around it. He shifted his hands as he moved, until he was inverted, doing a handstand with his legs extended straight above him.
He stayed that way for several moments, just breathing. He figured he was probably one of the few people in the world that could find a handstand restful.
Clint smirked and the dry tone, looking down at Bryan from his perch.
Bryan scoffed derisively – as if the very idea were preposterous. Clint just chuckled and shifted, folding his body down to brace his boots on the bar between his hands. Then he stood in one fluid movement, feet finding balance on the thin tube of metal like it was solid ground instead of a mere two inches thick. He watched Phil twitch minutely – the man never liked it when he did stuff like this. He would stand in amazement by the time Clint returned to earth, but he never liked it until Clint's feet were back on solid ground.
Clint turned, stepping backwards towards the wall and leaning casually against it. He crossed his arms over his chest and did what he could to take advantage of the reprieve. He'd have to go back down sooner or later, and the longer he stayed up here the more likely Phil was going to get…
The concern in Phil's tone was too veiled for anyone else to have heard it – even Bryan didn't seem to catch on. But Clint had become just as much of an expert at reading Phil over the past six – nearly seven – years as Phil had become at reading him. He had figured Phil would read into his subtle retreat, would put it together with his extended stay on the bars. So he was reasonably prepared to mount a defense.
Nothing was wrong. He was fine. He was just tired.
He pushed off the wall, balancing effortlessly once again, and offered the handler a somewhat confused grin – as if he weren't sure why Phil was asking.
Phil's eyebrows arched doubtfully and Clint knew he wasn't fooled. Clint rolled his eyes and turned facing the lower bar. He'd just have to show Phil he was fine. So he stepped back, dropping down and catching his hands on his current bar. He angled his body, swinging his weight to gain some momentum. He kept swinging until he got his body up even with the bar, and then he let go, throwing his head and shoulders back and pulling his legs forward.
He completed the back flip easily, his hands catching the lower bar. His momentum carried him up and over the bar. He shifted his hands, used his legs to speed his momentum, and completed another revolution, then he released, tucking into a ball and flipping towards the ground.
He realized – as he spotted the ground and noticed he was half a rotation off – that this wasn't going to end as he'd hoped. He tried to correct, but ended up landing with his weight back on his heels, and then backwards he went, rolling over his shoulder and to his hands and knees.
He hadn't been quite that ungraceful in a while. He'd at least landed on the mat, but so much for convincing Phil he was all good.
He sensed them both coming towards him and barely managed to push off the mat and block Bryan's boot from hitting his ribs. He sprang to his feet and dropped into a defensive stance. At least if he was sparring, he could put off Phil's mother-henning.
Bryan advanced and Clint let him come. He ducked, dodged, and weaved around a series of attacks, internally cursing as fatigue crept in again. Bryan left an opening at his ribs for a breath and Clint went for it. Bryan was ready for him. He caught Clint's wrist and twisted, no doubt intending to try and get it up and behind his back. Clint had learned to counter that move long ago – all he had to do was roll with it, and twist his body up into the air, rolling over their joined arms and untwisting his own shoulder.
But he was tired – and his reaction time was a second too late. Bryan knew his moves – knew how he would counter this one – and had planned for it. He kept twisting, hoping to keep Clint locked up even after he executed the counter.
But Clint didn't move quickly enough and the 'pop' echoed across the gym. Bryan released him immediately, eyes going wide and Clint stumbled a step away, right arm limp at his side.
"Well sonovabitch." Clint huffed a slight laugh of surprise. He looked down at his arm, hardly believing he'd just let Bryan dislocate it. He couldn't remember the last time anyone but Natasha had gotten a serious hit on him in a sparring match.
"Jesus, Clint. You don't ever get to tell me you're 'fine' again."
Phil was already moving towards him, even as Clint took the two steps it would take to reach the wall and leaned against it. Before he knew it, his knees decided they were just gonna take a break and he slid down to his butt. It was about then that the pain made its appearance, forcing Clint to minutely clench his jaw, making the muscle on its side twitch.
"Shit, kid, when I gave you crap about showing off, I didn't mean you should stop." Bryan scolded as he too came closer. Clint glanced at him, seeing the guilt written all over his friend's face.
"Yeah, well I guess I zigged when I should have zagged." Clint managed a self-depreciating smirk to try and ease some of Bryan's guilt.
The trainer's eyebrow arched.
"Barton, you didn't even zig." Now that was Bryan's coaching tone. "What the hell was that?"
Clint didn't get the time to try and come up with a viable response before Phil was grabbing his left bicep and pulling him up from the ground.
"We'll worry about that later, we need to get that shoulder back in before it starts swelling too badly." Phil didn't release his arm as he propelled him towards he door. "Dan switched shifts with someone and worked all night and just got off an hour ago, so you're gonna be the one to explain why we're bothering him."
Clint rolled his eyes and let Phil lead him along. He could walk on his own – could even find his way to Wilson's room on his own. But he could tell by the look in Phil's eyes that allowing the mother-henning for now was in Clint's imminent best interest. The grip on his arm, though, felt more like a product of annoyance than of concern. Either way, Clint didn't feel much like trying Phil's patience on the matter at the moment – not when he only had one arm with which to defend himself.
"I'm fine, Bryan, stop looking like a kicked puppy." Clint smirked over his shoulder as they finally came to a stop at the door to Wilson's quarters. The arched eyebrow glare he got in return had been known to make many a recruit quiver in fear. Clint's smirk just widened. He returned his attention to the door as he heard Phil knock.
There was a grunt from somewhere inside, a series of muttered words they couldn't quite decipher, a loud thud followed by a very loud curse they could decipher quite easily, and then finally the intercom buzzed to life.
"Unless someone's dying, go away."
Clint reached for the intercom before Phil had a chance.
"Bryan's dying of guilt, does that count?"
The door opened before he ever finished talking. Clint smiled merrily at Wilson, who was standing there in blue scrub pants and a bright orange t-shirt, scowling at them with mussed-up hair.
Clint cocked his head to the side at sight of the wardrobe choice.
"You go color blind?"
Wilson cleared his throat, ignored the question and instead arched an eyebrow at them.
"What the hell is wrong this time?"
His eyes were already scanning each of them individually, and they settled first on Phil's hand on Clint's left bicep then shifted to Clint's right shoulder.
"Dislocated shoulder." Phil volunteered the information quickly, no doubt to prevent Clint's likely more colorful version of events.
Wilson frowned and glanced over his shoulder, no doubt mourning his lost sleep. He sighed and waved them in.
"You know, Barton. I'm gonna start sending you out in bubble wrap. It'll save us all some aggravation."
"You're talking to the guy who still manages to get shot when he's wearing Kevlar." Bryan scoffed. "I doubt bubble wrap will make a difference either."
Clint shot him an annoyed glare and sat on the edge of Wilson's bed when the doctor motioned for it with his hand. Wilson picked up his right arm, feeling around on his shoulder with one hand. The doctor glanced at Bryan.
"You did this? Romanoff's gonna kill you when she gets back, you know that?" Wilson smirked evilly.
Bryan shrugged. "You fix it and she never has to know."
"She will if I tell her." Clint matched Wilson's smirk and cut his eyes over to Todd, only to twitch an eyebrow curiously when he noticed Wilson's closed bathroom door over Todd's shoulder. "You have some Tai food or something?"
Wilson frowned at him and followed his gaze. He swallowed suddenly and cleared his throat.
"Yeah, trust me it's better for all of us if that door's closed."
Clint tilted his head curiously as the back of Wilson's neck started to redden.
"Can we just put the shoulder back in?" Phil spoke suddenly from where he stood with his arms crossed at Clint's left shoulder.
"Relax, Phil. I'm fi-" Clint cut himself off with a sharp grunt of pain as Wilson forced his shoulder back into place with a sudden 'pop'. "Jesus, Doc! A little warning?"
Wilson pat his shoulder mockingly.
"Where's the fun in that? Besides they say the anticipation is the worst part. Ice and Ibprofen –you know the drill." Wilson backed up and allowed Clint to stand.
"Sadist," Clint grumbled as he rubbed his shoulder. "I oughta sic Tasha after you too."
"I oughta tell Natasha you just talked about her like she's a dog." Phil threatened with a smirk. Clint scowled at him.
Phil's eyebrow arched in silent challenge. Clint narrowed his own eyes and glared.
"What'll it take?"
"You buy the pizza for the game tonight." Phil's eyes took on a hint of victory.
Clint scowled again.
"Fine." Then he turned to Bryan. "I won't tell Nat you dislocated my shoulder if you buy the pizza for the game tonight."
Bryan rolled his eyes.
"I don't know why I even associate with you." He sighed and nodded in agreement to Wilson's muttered 'I'm with you there'. "Fine – but I'm getting one with anchovies – just because I know you hate the smell."
Clint shot him a one-fingered gesture even as Dan ushered them all towards the door.
"I can live with the anchovies because my boys are gonna kick the Angels' ASSES and you'll need all the comfort you can get."
"I should have just dislocated your jaw. Then maybe we'd get some peace and quiet." Bryan shot back as he followed Phil and Clint to the door.
"Peace and quiet – sounds nice." Wilson muttered as he herded them all out the door.
"Missing your beauty sleep, Wilson?" Clint gave him a mock sympathetic look and set his tone to match.
"Missing any sleep actually and if you don't leave so I can get some I'll tell Romanoff about all of this."
"Geesh – no need to get nasty." Clint released an affronted huff. "Unless…" then he smirked mischievously and stopped at the door, turning to regard Dan carefully. "Who is it?"
The red that had been encroaching on Dan's neck, shot straight up to his cheeks.
Clint's smirk widened and he looked very purposefully over at the bathroom door.
"The girl in your bathroom."
Both Phil and Bryan stepped back into the room immediately, causing Wilson to drop his face into his palm.
"You got a girl in here, Dan?" Bryan smirked.
"No." Dan denied firmly. "I just want to get some sleep."
Clint shook his head.
"Mismatched clothes, whispering before you answered the door, closed bathroom door and all those shifty looks…and I can tell you're lying – even if the fact that you're as red as a tomato didn't give it away. He definitely wasn't alone when we got here."
Wilson looked to Phil for rescue. The handler just shrugged.
"You think I can derail this now that he's on a roll? Besides," Phil smirked, "the kid raised some good points."
"A guy has a right to some privacy." Wilson insisted as he shifted to block Clint's attempt to slide past him. The look Clint gave him was patronizing at best.
"You really think you're actually gonna STOP me from getting past you?"
Before Wilson could answer the bathroom door swung open and resident physical therapist Rachel Braxton – the woman who had coached him through his devastating shoulder injury years ago – stepped out in nothing but a large t-shirt.
"Well, we ALL know how much of a stubborn pain in the ass you are, Barton – so let's just solve this mystery right now, shall we?"
Clint's jaw went slack.
"Jesus, Rachel." Wilson sighed, his shoulders sagging in defeat. She shrugged and leaned casually against the bathroom door frame.
"He's already figured it out – he wasn't going to let it go. And I refuse to hide in the bathroom like I'm fifteen and your parents just got home. Besides, I couldn't resist that look on his face."
Clint shook his head in awe – turning back to Wilson.
"Braxton? Really? How'd you manage that?"
Wilson rolled his eyes and Braxton scowled.
"Hey, I'm a grown-assed woman – he didn't 'manage' anything. Does anybody ask you how you 'manage' Romanoff?"
Clint smirked and opened his mouth, only to be cut off when a hand suddenly latched onto his left elbow and pulled him to the door. Phil, whose face was almost as red as Wilson's, pushed him out the door.
Clint snickered to himself as Phil turned back and spoke past Bryan, who was following them out with a look of awe on his face.
"You realize he WOULD have answered that, right?" Phil arched an eyebrow at Braxton, who rolled her eyes like she should have expected as much. Wilson stepped to the door way, blocking their view into the room.
"You're an ass, Barton."
"Hey, you practically begged me to figure it out with all those tells. Seriously, LOOK at what you're putting on next time. Cuz orange and blue…not working for you."
Wilson glared at him.
"I hope the game ends in a tie tonight."
Clint's eyes widened and his jaw dropped in shock. Bryan's did something similar next to him.
"Hey now…no need for that kind of talk." The trainer patted his hand in the air like he could simmer Wilson down that way.
"How could you say something like that? That's just MEAN." Clint shook his head reproachfully.
"You know, you're right…" Wilson gave him a painfully mocking look of sincerity and crossed his arm over his chest in a manner Clint immediately interpreted as superior. "I hope the Angels kick the Yankees' ass."
He closed the door on whatever reply Clint was going to give.
"I think I pissed him off."
Phil rolled his eyes and ushered Clint back down the hallway.
Phil chuckled to himself as he reached for another slice of pizza and watched Clint and Todd argue with almost alarming intensity about a call that had just been made in the baseball game they had pulled up on the very large screen in one of the base's conference rooms.
"You'd think it was the World Series with those two." Dan put in as he polished off the last of his own piece of pizza.
"All game – every game." Phil laughed. "And you're no better when the Mets are playing."
Dan rolled his eyes but didn't deny it as he brushed crumbs off his blue Mets t-shirt.
"So…" Phil leaned back in his chair and bit into his pizza. "You and Rachel?"
Dan cleared his throat and red crept up from under his collar – he nodded almost sheepishly.
"About three months now."
Phil nodded, though he was surprised Dan had managed to keep it a secret for that long. Secrets were hard to keep when you had the likes of Clint Barton and Natasha Romanoff running around. Those two were better experts at sniffing secrets out than they were at keeping them. And that was saying something.
"Good for you, Dan." And Phil meant it. It was hard – in their line of work – to cultivate a life outside of the job. Clint and Natasha had managed to do it – against all odds. Clint was that link for him, giving him a life outside of SHIELD. There was the occasional girlfriend, but nothing had ever stuck. But Phil was okay with that – Clint being the best friend, brother, and son he'd never had was more than enough for him.
"How's he doing anyway?"
Phil blinked, drawing abruptly out of his musings and looking at Dan in confusion.
"Barton." Dan nodded at the archer – who was currently cramming half a slice of pizza into his mouth and shouting at the screen at the same time – and then continued. "After all this shit that happened in Budapest, there were a lot of unanswered questions. He and Romanoff coping all right?"
Phil sighed. Clint had finally accepted that he was never going to remember all of what happened in Budapest, a product of the poison Alex Moreno had shot him up with. But that acceptance had come only after a lot of frustration. And not just Clint's frustration. Phil and Natasha were right there with him. None of them would ever know the full extent of what Clint had gone through for those hours before he busted into the jail cell and reunited with Natasha. What they did know was troubling enough in its own right. He'd been haunted by some manifestation of Barney Barton – his betraying brother that somehow still had a hold on him even after all this time. He'd also hallucinated the faces that went with many of the names in his ledger. The ledger that they – the three of them together – had burned on the rooftop in the hopes that Clint could start to let that part of his life go. That he could start the process of forgiving himself for it.
So how was Clint doing? There was never just one answer for that question – not when it came to Clint.
"They're hanging in there. It's tough on him, not remembering. Natasha filled in a lot of blanks but…" Phil shrugged. "Like you said, a lot of unanswered questions."
"Speaking of those…you ever figure out what the hell went wrong? How the crazy bitch found out they were coming?"
Phil schooled his expression.
"I'm working on it."
Had he found out? Hell, yes, he had. Clint and Natasha had been betrayed by a member of the World Security Council – Matthew Williams. Since then, Phil had been running an off-books investigation turning over every rock he could find to gather evidence on the man. Because he knew they wouldn't be able to move on him until they had a solid case.
And Phil wanted to move on him. He wanted Williams' head. The man had lost his daughter – Phil got that, better than he ever thought he would. But as he'd told Clint a million times as he sat with him and tried to help him process the guilt and self-hatred he felt for what he'd done that year as a contract assassin, Clint had been the bullet in the gun back then. He had been wrong, yes, but Brianna Williams hadn't been personal. It had been a contract – a job. And if Clint could take it back, he would. Hell, the kid would give his goddamned life to take it back.
But Phil wouldn't.
And Phil wouldn't let Williams take his life for it either.
He didn't realize he'd let his gaze settle heavily on Clint until Dan elbowed his bicep.
"You're thinking really hard there, Phil, that's usually dangerous for you."
Phil huffed a slight laugh and pulled his gaze away from Clint and back to his pizza before the archer had a chance to sense it. Phil shook his head slightly, trying to clear the dark thoughts.
He looked up at Dan, attention caught not by his name – but by the concerned, sincere tone in which it was spoken.
"What the hell is going on?"
For a moment, Phil wanted to tell him everything. To unload all his worries and fears about Williams and the vendetta the man had against Clint. But then reality and reason caught up with him and he knew he couldn't say anything. At least, he couldn't say anything that would clue Dan into what was really going on. This wasn't about his own fears and worries. It was about Clint and Williams. And Phil wouldn't say anything without Clint's go-ahead.
Then there was the whole security issue. The more people that knew, the more risk there was that it would get out. Not that he didn't trust Dan. He trusted the man with Clint's life on a regular basis – and for Phil, trust didn't go deeper than that. They just couldn't risk Williams getting tipped off and disappearing.
"I swear to god, if you say 'nothing' I'm going to slip you something in your coffee – you won't know when or where, but it's going to happen." But the joking in the tone was backed heavily by concern making Phil sigh heavily.
"It's no secret that the Council has it in for Clint," he revealed carefully. "That's the angle I'm working right now. Trying to end this before another Budapest can happen."
Dan's expression grew grim and his eyes shifted to Clint, who was currently taunting Todd because the Yankees had just scored a run. He looked back at Phil.
"The Council was responsible for Budapest?"
There was sudden venom in Dan's eyes and Phil knew he was remembering what they all went through trying to get Clint and Natasha back – and then only to realize that they could lose Clint anyway. They almost had – and had almost lost Natasha too.
"We don't know anything for sure. And whatever it is, I doubt the entire Council was involved. Like I said, I'm working on it." Phil assured.
Dan stared at him very seriously.
"You really can't tell me anything else, can you?"
Phil often found himself thanking God for Dan's amazingly well-timed perceptiveness.
"No, I can't. It's not about trust – you know that, right?"
Dan nodded, eyes drifted to Clint as the archer shifted to reach for his cell phone that was ringing on the table.
"You do whatever it takes to end this. If that means lying to me – keeping shit from me – do it. He risks his life enough in this job without having to watch out for a knife in the back." Dan's gaze hardened suddenly. "If somebody in SHIELD, somebody in the Council – hell, the whole Council – is responsible for all this shit, nail their asses to the wall. Got it?"
Phil nodded seriously.
"Good – because I'm tired of putting that kid back together over and over again. And I'm tired of constantly worrying that one day I won't be able to."
God, did Phil ever understand a worry like that one. What had he been doing the past almost seven years but put Clint back together – over and over. Trying to get the kid past his crippling self-worth issues, his burning self-hatred. Trying to get him to see himself as MORE than a killer or a bullet in a gun. Just trying to get him to see that he was worth something to someone – was worth everything to Phil.
Natasha had helped a lot in that area – had brought to life a side of Clint that Phil didn't even know existed. But even more importantly, she'd gotten Clint to see that he mattered to her and by that, that he could matter to other people beyond just Phil.
"This is gonna end, one way or another, soon." Phil promised seriously. Because if this case didn't come together soon – if Williams made another move on Clint…then to hell with protocol. To hell with evidence and to hell with SHIELD. Phil would go hunt down Williams himself and put a bullet through his brain for daring to mess with Phil's family.
"Just come in when you get back, doesn't matter what time it is."
Todd watched Barton reach for another slice of pizza even as he continued his conversation with who could only be Romanoff. Todd stared at the pizza for a long moment and then shrugged. He motioned Barton to hand him another slice. The archer did so almost absently as he leaned back in his chair and spoke around a bite full of his own pizza.
"How's the leg holding up?"
Whatever Romanoff said seemed to ease whatever concern Barton had because he smiled and stuffed more pizza into his mouth.
"Fine – forget I asked." He chuckled. He sat forwards suddenly as the game came back on. "Game's back on."
She seemed to be far more understanding than most women would have been because Barton nodded and said something quickly in Russian before tossing the phone onto the table and zeroing his focus on the TV.
Less than three minutes later, the Angels' coach was calling a time out and walking out to the pitcher's mound. Barton sat back with a sigh and Todd seized the opening.
"So Romanoff's leg doing okay?"
Barton looked over at him blankly for a moment before the question seemed to click together in his head, pulling him away from the world of baseball and back to reality.
"Yeah. She's pissed that she got stuck with an intel mission out of the gate, but the leg is fine. I wouldn't ask her about it by the way. She's a little…" Barton smirked suddenly as if thinking back on some inside joke Todd wasn't privy to, "defensive."
Todd chuckled a little. He could only imagine what that meant.
"And you? You seem to be getting closer to a hundred percent every day."
Barton shrugged slightly, only to reach and massage his right shoulder immediately. Todd knew it had to be sore – dislocations always were.
Todd rolled his eyes. He was getting as sick of that line as Phil seemed to be.
"Kid, if you were 'fine', I'd never have gotten close enough to get a hold of you, much less dislocate your shoulder. Sorry again by the way."
Barton waved away the apology and sighed – seeming to decide he was done putting up a front.
"Ever since Budapest," he rested his head back against the headrest and pinned his eyes on the ceiling, "my endurance has been in the crapper." He shook his head and then cut his eyes over to meet Todd's. "Doesn't matter what I do…I feel like I'm always running uphill. Today it caught up with me."
Todd frowned. He was fairly certain that Barton's version of "in the crapper" was probably not what it was to most men. But when he stopped to think about it, he guessed he had noticed Barton had been tiring a little more quickly than he used to. Right after the shit in Budapest that had been expected…but it had been a month. The kid hadn't seemed to have lost a step though, had always found a way to adjust to that fatigue.
It hadn't been a big step – and if Todd hadn't known Barton's moves like they were practically his own, that little step wouldn't have mattered. But Todd had planned for Barton to counter – to do something that was sure to seem almost a little impossible. When that hadn't happened – when Barton had instead reacted as any normal fighter would – Todd's extra twist to keep the acrobatic Barton in check had turned into a dislocated shoulder.
"Yeah, well kid, you got dosed with a hell of a drug cocktail that we know was at least a few parts poisonous." Barton tilted his head in agreement. "A month ago I was in the back of that jet watching you circle the drain. And somehow," Todd shook his head because he still couldn't quite believe it, "you clawed your way back from the other side. So running uphill or not – I've got no doubt that you won't let it happen again. You're too strong for anything else."
Barton sighed – as if he wasn't quite satisfied. His confidence in himself had never quite been where Todd thought it should be – or where Phil thought it should be. Todd had been fighting that particular uphill battle right alongside Phil for years.
So he drew in a breath to fortify himself and turned to fully meet Barton's eyes.
"Dan cleared you for duty two weeks ago because he believes the same thing. Besides – it's getting better, isn't it?"
Barton shrugged his left shoulder and nodded slightly. Todd nodded in return.
"That's because you've been working like hell to get back to where you were. And we all know how much of a stubborn pain in the ass you can be when you set your mind to something." Todd let his smirk tell Barton he meant that with nothing but affection. "You'll get back there. But even you are limited by the capabilities of the human body." Even if you do seem to defy that more often than most.
Barton sighed and nodded. Satisfied for the moment, Todd sat back in his seat.
"And don't think I've forgotten that you went and got yourself needing CPR again. You promised to quit with that shit after you almost went down in Uzbekistan."
Barton waggled a finger at him with teasing in his eyes.
"I never promised anything."
Todd rolled his eyes – that hadn't been for his lack of trying to get a promise out of the kid.
"Doesn't mean I wasn't hoping for it anyway, kid."
Barton's expression softened slightly and the teasing left his gaze.
"Sorry to disappoint."
"Oh hell, kid…you've never disappointed. You just keep worrying us all towards early graves."
Barton huffed a slight laugh and made a face like he knew the truth of that statement all too well. Todd was sure he did. He'd never met anyone quite as perceptive as Barton tended to be and one didn't need to be all that perceptive to pick up on the worry that practically bled off of Phil, Dan and himself when it came to the kid.
"I'll try to work on that." Barton promised with an almost patronizing tone as he focused intensely on the screen when the game came back on. Todd sat back in his own chair and waited – knowing he wouldn't be able to pull Barton's focus away from the screen until the next commercial.
So he waited and bided his time and as soon as it went to commercial he cleared his throat and casually asked the question that had been burning on his lips ever since Budapest.
"So what the hell is going on?"
Barton froze ever so slightly – as close to a tell as he'd ever get – before blinking and giving him a blank glance.
"Don't play dumb with me kid, it doesn't suit you."
Barton's eyes narrowed slightly and he scowled for a moment before his expression smoothed with almost scary ease into a look of blank innocence.
"Nothing's going on, Bryan."
Todd rolled his eyes.
"Listen, kid, let me tell you something. I grew up on the streets of south LA running with a crew that might even make you think twice. I can handle whatever this shit is that you're sitting on right now."
Barton stared at him, the blank innocence gone and replaced by an almost terrifyingly intense look of scrutiny. Todd knew he was being weighed and measured in that moment.
Barton's expression suddenly smoothed and he spoke as casually as if he was talking about the weather.
"We're looking into the shit that went down in Budapest."
Todd's mind flashed back to the jet – to watching Dan shock the life back into Barton – to watching Phil watch the kid like his whole world would collapse if he died.
He had to mentally shake himself and focus back on Barton.
"What about it?"
Barton sighed and shifted in his seat.
"About who sold us out."
Todd felt a surge of adrenaline – as if he could go right now and exact revenge on the guilty party himself.
"You have a lead?"
Barton searched his gaze intensely with his own – looking for something. What? Todd wasn't sure. Finally, the steely, blue-gray gaze shifted away and Barton glanced around once before meeting Todd's eyes again – with no less intensity than before.
"We're looking into possible ties to the Council."
Todd felt like a sledge hammer had just slammed into his chest. The Council.
Barton didn't say anything else, just sat back in his chair and stared at him – letting him process.
Todd shook his head. It couldn't be. Barton couldn't be being targeted by SHIELD's own leaders.
But…who else would have known the Hawk and the Widow were coming for Moreno? The missions those two went on were hush-hush even on base – strictly need to know.
"Jesus, kid. Is the Council gunning for you?"
Todd didn't know how they were supposed to protect Barton from that. He didn't even know where to start.
"We don't know anything for sure. Like I said," Clint gave him a heavy look, "we're looking into it."
Todd nodded – catching the hint to put up and shut up about it. He wasn't an idiot. Even if it wasn't true – this wasn't the kind of information you could just go around talking about. And if it was true…
Todd clenched his jaw. He'd nail every one of their asses to the wall if it was.
Clint was wondering if the scowl on Todd's face could get any deeper when the conference room door suddenly opened and none other than Fury himself stepped in. Clint swore every one of them stopped breathing as the director scowled over them.
Clint waited for the inevitable chewing out they would get for using the conference room for something other than 'conferencing'. And when the director took a step forward, he was sure no one would escape unscathed.
Then the unpredictable happened. Fury unfolded his hands from behind his back and reached out for slice of pizza.
"What's the score?"
Clint blinked. He wondered how it felt in hell now that it had frozen over. The rest of the room seemed equally stunned. It was Phil that recovered first.
"Angels are getting their asses kicked."
Clint smirked at that, meeting Phil's eyes in time to see the older man toss him a smirk of his own as he continued.
"And we all know that's all that really matters."
"Damn straight." Clint glanced at Bryan with an evilly triumphant grin.
Bryan glared at him.
"Game ain't over yet, Barton."
Clint didn't get a chance to respond before an announcement came over the TV that the Yankees had just scored another run.
Clint just smirked wider as Bryan's shoulders slumped.
Phil coughed back a laugh and even Mr. Hardcore Mets Fan – Wilson – smiled. Fury's one eye blinked slowly, but Clint was certain he saw a measure of amusement in it as the director pulled a chair over with his foot and sat down.
The Angels brought in a new pitcher and everyone relaxed back in their chairs as the new guy started warming up. Clint glanced at Phil. He could practically feel the sudden buzz of energy surrounding the man. He wondered how long it would take for Fury's right-hand man to ask the question Clint knew to be whirling in his mind.
"How's the progress with the Helicarrier?"
Fury chewed his pizza thoughtfully for a moment before responding.
"Right on schedule."
"The essential personnel all settled?"
Clint nearly rolled his eyes – in nothing but affection, of course – because Phil just couldn't not ask about work when they were supposed to be relaxing.
Fury nodded calmly – as if he'd anticipated and been ready for the line of questioning before ever stepping into the room.
"When do you anticipate going fully operational?"
Everybody in the room perked up at that question. The Helicarrier was a hot topic around base these days. With the list of reassigned personnel supposedly close to being released, there were mixed feelings about the new mobile base going operational.
Clint, for his part, would much rather just stay right here in New York, thank you very much. Shiny new base or not, Clint liked the freedom of getting to leave whenever he wanted without having to get clearance for a jet.
Though with his propensity for bad luck, he'd probably not only get stuck on the carrier, but Phil and Natasha would probably end up staying in New York.
He shook his head slightly to clear his thoughts as Fury responded.
"Within the next sixty days – give or take."
Everyone nodded – as if it had been all of them asking the question, not just Phil. Fury remained unfazed and just continued to calmly chew his pizza.
"When is the list coming out?" Wilson asked suddenly, not appearing as if he could restrain himself from asking. Clint was glad to know he wasn't the only one that didn't seem to want to be stuck on an oversized flying boat.
"The list is still being finalized."
Clint hated when Fury answered a question simply without really answering it. The man was a master at it. Wilson seemed equally annoyed by the response, but didn't push further.
The sudden sound of a bat cracking against a ball drew everyone's attention back to the screen and soon they were all enthralled in the game once again. It didn't take long for Clint and Bryan to be going at each other again and for talk of the Helicarrier and reassignments to fade from his mind.
Clint absently spun the pizza box on his finger – he fully intended to finish off the last few slices in the comfort of his room – as he and Phil walked down the mostly empty hallways of the SHIELD base. The hallways were never truly empty. Because SHIELD had operations running around the world and was in near-constant communication with the other bases, having staff on duty 24 hours a day was a necessity.
But the crowds tended to run a little thinner in the later hours of the night.
"So Bryan's gotten wise to something going on." Clint stated the information casually as they rounded the corner into their residence hall.
Phil sighed – but didn't seem surprised.
"What'd you tell him?"
"That we're looking into Budapest," Phil paused briefly and glanced behind them to insure they were alone in the hallway. Though – since he, Natasha, and Phil practically inhabited most of this hall with their rooms and their private training gym – it wasn't likely for anyone else to be around.
"And that we're looking into a tie to the Council."
"Pretty much what I told Bryan, too."
They came to a stop in front of Phil's door – Clint's was a little farther down the hallway – but Phil didn't raise his hand to the palm reader. Clint arched an eyebrow in question.
"I think it might be a good idea to bring them in. We could use all the help we can get if this goes south."
Clint shook his head immediately.
"Are we really going to have that discussion again?"
Phil's shoulders stiffened and he crossed his arms over his chest.
"I think it's an option that you need to consider."
Clint rolled his eyes and sighed before fixing Phil with an intensely serious look.
"Do you really think bringing them in is the right move? This is the Council we're dealing with, Phil. If this goes south on us, could you live with bringing them down with us?"
Phil's eyes flared angrily.
"And if something else happens to you – or to Natasha?" Phil said her name like he knew that would be one of his best arguing points. "Do you think they could live with that? If they'd had a chance to help and hadn't?"
Clint clenched his hand around the pizza box and resisted the urge to jab it against Phil's chest as he made his point.
"If we play our cards right, we can stop Williams before anything else happens. I'm not," Clint's knuckles went white around the pizza box for a moment before he forced his grip to loosen, "putting anyone else at risk. Not until we don't have a choice."
"And who decides when we 'don't have a choice?'" Phil shot back sharply.
"I do." Clint snapped. "This is about me, Phil. About what I did." He cut his hand through the air to stop Phil from cutting in even as the other man opened his mouth. "Whether you think I deserve to be punished or not – Williams does. And he's going to keep coming for me. He's already pulled Natasha into it. I'm not giving him any more people I care about to use as targets."
Phil deflated a little at that and Clint had a feeling that had everything to do with the all-too-fresh memory of Budapest – and of both Natasha and Clint nearly dying because of Williams and his vendetta.
"Maybe they could help us – maybe they couldn't. But at least this way I know they're out of the line of fire."
Phil finally nodded.
"Fine. We'll keep them in the dark – for now. But, kid, if this shit gets much deeper we're going to need all the help we can get."
It was Clint's turn to nod.
"I know – but we're not there yet."
"Okay." Phil allowed calmly and then he blew out a deep breath. "Go get some sleep. You've got a date with the track in the morning to run off all that pizza you ate."
Clint smirked and wiggled the box demonstratively.
"Then I better go eat the rest and make it worth my while."
Phil laughed and pressed his hand into the palm reader.
"Night, Phil." Clint tossed over his shoulder as he headed down the hallway to his own room. A few moments later he was inside and relaxed back on his bed – pizza in hand, ear buds in place, iPod playing, and his well-worn copy of Return of the King open on his lap.
End of Chapter One
And we're off!
Everything is all nice and happy :) But what kind of story would this be if it stayed that way?! Buckle up! We're in for a wild ride full of action, angst, and injury!
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Here's your preview of Chapter 2!
"You think you're the only one that knows about pain, Barton?"
The archer stopped nearly midstride, but didn't turn.
"I know about pain. And not the kind of pain that comes with a gunshot wound – real, bone deep pain. I know about that. I know about wishing with everything you had that you could just go back – that you could go back to how things were before. And believe it or not, you aren't the only one who knows about loss, either."